Aceh

The Uncertain Role of Religion in Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election

Indonesia 2014 Election Wikipedia mapThe on-line maps that I have found of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election are not very helpful. That of the Wikipedia is particularly poor. To begin with, it merely shows which candidate received a majority of votes in each province, with no information provided on the margin of victory. But the returns actually varied quite significantly across the country, with the winning candidate Joko Widodo receiving more than 73 percent of the votes cast in Papua and fewer than 24 percent of those cast in West Sumatra. The color scheme used in the Wikipedia map is also poorly conceived. Crimson?Provincial victories for both candidates are marked in shades of red, although, as the caption notes, a more standard red is used for Joko Widodo, whereas “crimson” is used for Prabowo Subianto. But according to the Wikipedia’s own article on “crimson,” the shade used on the map is actually something different. To be sure, the Wikipedia does differentiate a number of shades of crimson, many of which are associated with college sports teams, but none approximates the color used on the map.

Indonesia 2014 Presidential Election MapDue to such quibbles, I have made my own map of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, posted here. The map shows relatively weak regional patterning overall, with both candidates taking provinces in most parts of the country. But it also shows reasonable strong voting differentiation by province, as noted above. I have tried, although perhaps not hard enough*, to find explanations for such electoral behavior, albeit without much luck. The patterns on the election map certainly do not Indonesia 2014 Election GDP Mapscorrelate well with those found on the map of GDP per capita, as can be seen in the paired maps (compare, for example, the showings of East Kalimantan and East Nusa Tenggara on the two maps.)

Indonesia 2014 election religion mapsA better, although far from perfect, correlation is found in regard to religion. As can be seen in the second set of juxtaposed maps, Muslim-minority provinces all supported Joko Widodo (Jokowi), several of them quite strongly. But then again, a number of strongly Muslim provinces also cast a high proportion of their votes for Jokowi. It is also noteworthy that Aceh in far northern Sumatra, which is the most resolutely Islamic part of Indonesia, supported the losing candidate Prabowo Subianto by a relatively thin margin.

Unfortunately, the map of religion does not indicate either degrees of religiosity or the prevalence of orthodox interpretations, both of which may also play a role. This issue is particularly significant in regard to Java, the demographic core of the country (of Indonesia’s 252 million inhabitants, 143 million live on Java). Central and Western Java have long been noted for their heterodox interpretations of the faith; until recently, a majority of people here have adhered to a form of worship sometimes called Kebatinan, which is defined by the Wikipedia as a “Javanese religious tradition, consisting of an amalgam of animistic, Buddhist, and Islamic, especially Sufi, beliefs and practices … [that is] rooted in the Javanese history and religiosity, syncretizing aspects of different Java Language Mapreligions.” Although mainstream Islam is spreading in eastern and central Java—the Javanese-speaking portions of the island—this area still remains much less conventionally devout than the Sundanese-speaking area of western Java. In the 2014 election, perhaps not coincidentally, western Java supported Prabowo, whereas the east and especially the center opted instead for Jokowi.

The best report what I have found on the role of religion in the 2014 Indonesian presidential election is found in an Al Jazeera article entitled “Religion the Dark Horse in Indonesia Election.” Published before the election was held, it argued that:

[P]rior to Jokowi’s emergence as a political figure in 2012, when he was elected governor of Jakarta, members of religious minorities tended to support a Prabowo presidency – viewing him as a forceful figure able to crack down on impunity, and noting that his brother and mother are both Christian. Now, he says, Jokowi is the favourite among religious minorities.

“In general, Prabowo has been pandering to Islamist sentiment and Jokowi has been more pluralist in his outlook,” said Gregory Fealy, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University. Accordingly, three of the four Islamist parties that won seats in parliament have joined Prabowo’s coalition; the fourth, the moderate PKB, supports Jokowi.

Prabowo has also been endorsed by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group whose members have been involved in attacks against religious minorities, bars and nightclubs.

Minangkabau MapThis explanation, however, leaves me with two perplexities. First, why would hyper-devout Aceh have given Prabowo such lukewarm support? Could it be that many Acehnese people are chafing under the region’s harsh imposition of Sharia law? More surprising still is the extremely high level of support for Prabowo in West Sumatra. West Sumatra is certainly a Muslim-dominated province, but, like central and eastern Java, it has long been characterized by a rather lax form of their faith, one that historically prioritized customary law (adat) over Sharia. Indeed, the dominant ethno-linguistic group in the province, the Minangkabau, are noted for their matrilineal system of reckoning decent and familial property, a system so engrained that the Minangkabau have been characterized (incorrectly, in my view**) as forming a “modern matriarchy.” As a result, the extremely strong showing of Prabowo in the province seems odd. If any readers have any insights into this issue, I would love to hear them.

*It is currently exam- and paper-grading season, which is taking up most of my time.

** The Wikipedia describes Minangkabau culture as “matrilineal and patriarchal, with property and land passing down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men.” I do not, however, think that either “matriarchy” or “patriarchy” are appropriate terms in this context.

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Whither Acehnese Autonomy?

Despite the attention that sensational natural disasters receive in the media, their long-term significance sometimes seems questionable. But when nature’s calamities do change societies, the consequences can be profound. The All Soul’s Day Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, for example, purportedly led many European thinkers to question whether natural calamities reflect the will of God, boosting Enlightenment skepticism and launching the science of seismology. The 2005 Kashmir earthquake, by contrast, is often said to have bolstered religious fundamentalism, with local Muslim clerics convincing many believers that their lack of piety had provoked God.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami may not have had similar ideological effects, but its political repercussions were significant; the disaster brought peace to the troubled region of Aceh in northern Sumatra, ending a three-decade old civil war. With more than 100,000 lives lost, the devastation was so severe and the needs for reconstruction so profound that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed to lay down its arms, just as the Indonesian government agreed to grant Aceh self-rule. Thus the “Special Territory” of Aceh came into being as an autonomous area within Indonesia, subject to its own laws. Election in the region soon brought former GAM rebel leaders to power.

The majority population of the region, the Acehnese, speak their own language and follow many of their own traditions. They are also reputed to be the most devout Muslims of Indonesia, adhering to a strongly orthodox version of the faith. Islam first entered Southeast Asia through Northern Sumatra, and the Acehnese have long maintained close religious and cultural connections with the Arabian Peninsula, particularly with the Hadhramaut region of Yemen. On gaining autonomy, Aceh instituted shariah (Islamic law), enforcing harsh penalties against drinking and the mingling of unrelated men and women. As in Saudi Arabia, “vice and virtue patrols” now have broad power to punish those who flout strict Islamic norms.

The granting of autonomy to Aceh raised concerns in other parts of the world. Some observers feared that with religiously inspired ex-militants coming to power, Aceh would become a haven for Islamist radicals. Dedicated Muslim militants, according to this line of thinking, would never be content with mere regional autonomy, as their ultimate goal is to create a unified caliphate that would bring all Islamic areas in Southeast Asia, and ultimately the world, under one government. Other experts countered that the rebellion in northern Sumatra was inspired more by Acehnese nationalism than by religious fanaticism, and that Aceh would probably not become a terrorist sanctuary.

Recent events in Aceh could be used as evidence by either school of thought. In March 2010, Indonesian authorities discovered and dismantled a major militant training camp in the region. The camp was reportedly used to train fighters for operations not only elsewhere in Indonesia, but also in the Gaza Strip. A number of anti-terrorism raids were subsequently conducted elsewhere in Aceh. Yet none of the people thus far killed or apprehended have any demonstrable connection with GAM, the former revolutionary movement that now helps run the government of Aceh. One former leader of the group has gone so far as to proclaim that “GAM, in fact, works with the military and police to hunt terrorists.” To the extent that this statement is correct, one must conclude that the Islamist militants of Indonesia have serious erred, misinterpreting what was actually a religiously inspired nationalist movement as a front for global jihad.

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